That Time You Were Taboo--Sex and “The Talk” that shouldn’t end in health class
In nine months I will have a teenager. The Golden Boy will be 13 and the thought has my stomach in knots.
It’s not the angst that worries me, as I am a seasoned “angster” myself. Nor is it excessive partying, as a New Orleans Coming of Age bequeaths an adult superpower to see straight through the shenanigan BS of our offspring. What keeps me up at night is the inevitability of “the talk,” which ultimately means overcoming my weakness of ignoring the awkward and that which makes me squirm.
He’s already had an initial talk which I followed up with a generic, “Do you have any questions?”
He looked out the window and mumbled, “Uh, no. Gross, Mom!”
And that was the end of it, except that I know that can’t be the end, not if I want him to talk later when life gets murky, and not if I want to catch the confusion before another talk is too late.
After twelve years of private school and church groups, I left for college with pockets full of traditions, sisterhoods, and a seemingly innocent outlook. The world wasn’t a cruel place in which I would elbow my way to the top. The future was bright and mine to lose. Except there was one area in which I was inexperienced: sex. In my youth, it wasn’t just suggested that abstinence be our choice until marriage. It was indoctrinated. The alternative wasn’t just bad. It was wrong. No one said this directly, but the implication was clear. Naughty girls did “it.” And looking back, the tabooing of a most natural instinct only made it unnatural and consequently terrifying. The result was that I regarded the act with reverent shock—something almost everyone eventually does but nothing worth mentioning.
And while I personally agree that sex and its emotional and physical consequences don’t belong in high school, when made taboo we force topics into the falsehood that they’re unrelatable--restricting them to complete privacy, unable to be shared, talked about, or counseled. In other words, we shame the most serious conversations into suppression. In the long run was the outcome of insecurity better than normalizing the taboo? Because, by the time I did join the club I was clueless and embarrassed. That’s no way to send someone off to adulthood. And so I can’t help but wonder why we let this happen. Why are we willing to taboo subjects right off the table?
Let’s face it. Few of us want to sit in front of our babies and tell them how they got here. And furthermore, even fewer of us want to think of them having sex. For when they do, they aren’t babies anymore. That veil of innocence is gone forever and with it the sheltering that we worked so hard to cultivate to protect them from everything that would spoil their childhood. I’m not enough of a historian to know when it began, but somewhere in history, sex became the thing of whispers and we’ve yet to have the nerve to give it the mic. Could it be that we, ourselves, are as uncomfortable now as we were the day the boys were separated from the girls and the health teacher played an outdated video of the miracle of life?
This begs the question: What are we so afraid of? Can sex be spoken into existence? My father was known for saying, “Garbage in. Garbage out.” He referred to smutty and gory television and books that could be easily digested in our thoughts and then put out into the world. I think there lies a fear that if we talk about something enough we normalize it into acceptance. And so if young people aren’t afraid, experimenting is entirely conceivable--a terrifying thought to parents everywhere. On the other hand, imagine the result of face to face, eye to eye honesty. If sex had been given the mic in my teens, my early twenties wouldn't have been nearly so confusing.
The irony is that none of my insecurities are to be blamed on my parents. My mother was a counselor at a high school for pregnant teenagers. Teenage sex was as regular a topic as the weather in my house. It was the signals outside my door that were to blame--an entire society so embarrassed by the topic that even I, the daughter of a counselor for the girls who got caught, couldn’t speak of it.
Mom held weekly group therapy for the parents of her students. The first thing all of the parents had to address was their own embarrassment that their daughter had “done it.” It seemed that the baby, the change of lifestyle, and the long road ahead played second fiddle to the realization that baby girl wasn’t a baby girl anymore. But I’m curious: If they had lived in complete oblivion, not knowing what their daughter was engaged in, would that have been more comforting?
If the topic had been on the table from day one, as an open dialogue and, dare I say, conversation about options, would they have been in Mom’s group therapy after all? There’s no way of knowing. But there is this: All children grow up eventually. Why should our insecurities and our incapability to face our own reservations about taboo topics permit our children to parent themselves, only to get to adulthood quicker and without us?
There will always be a culture of curiosity about sex. Recently, a friend of mine shared a picture of a box set of V.C. Andrews novels much to the chortles from myself and friends my age. Those young adult books were kept hidden in our rooms in eighth grade and were the subject of shocked conversations on the phone and in circles at recess because they were jam-packed with everything naughty and everything we wanted to know more about. Curiosity is natural, but what we can make unnatural is the need of young people to stuff books like those along with curiosity under the mattress. Even my mother, the counselor, couldn’t prevent this, but we need to keep trying. Our children's adulthood will thank us later!
I know enough to know that taboo is cultural. It’s embedded in civilization. It’s religious. It’s passed down and intrinsic to how we view ourselves and one another. The thing is, we are all taboo. We all have pasts and secrets and if we talk about them, maybe we’d live in a more accepting world because one person’s homosexuality is another person’s battle with depression. One person’s addiction is another person’s money problems. Some of us have had pregnancy scares. Some of us never told a soul. Some secrets we keep under lock and key, a manageable matter between ourselves and it. The rest we keep quiet because we feel we have no choice when the alternative is made to feel alternative. What I didn’t realize as an adolescent is the difference between private matters and shame. Privacy is our personal business, something we choose to keep to ourselves. Shame is something we hide because we have no other choice. One is our own doing. The other is chosen for us.
My second row with adolescence, now through the lens of my children, is upon me. My parents did the best they could, and yet I still shied away with embarrassment from asking questions and talking about sex. Ultimately, this kept me from feeling I could be honest within intimate relationships I would later have. So who’s to say the cycle of silence won’t continue? I don’t know. But I do know that the greater taboo is doing nothing to stop the cycle.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.